By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
All of this required some adept political finagling, and in late 1995, SEIU sent the campaign a first-class political finagler. Just 30 years old, David Rolf arrived in Los Angeles from Georgia, where he had helped SEIU win some notable political victories. He quickly boosted the fledgling union’s credibility by having the local take a lead role on Proposition 210, the 1996 initiative that raised the minimum wage (for which the local collected more signatures than any other group). Over the next couple of years, at Rolf’s prodding, SEIU also provided key assistance to the Assembly campaigns of Carl Washington (which helped ingratiate the local to Supervisor Yvonne Burke, Washington’s longtime boss) and Gil Cedillo (which helped ingratiate the local to Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, Cedillo’s childhood friend). Burke’s support would prove to be one of the keys to the supervisors’ decision to establish the public authority; Villaraigosa’s support will likely prove key to the union’s ability to win state-budget language giving its members a raise.
At the same time, Rolf ran a most unusual organizing campaign among the workers. "It was in form as much a political campaign as an organizing drive," he says. "It involved precinct walking and canvassing, phone banks and mail." Between March and November of last year, organizers knocked on the doors of 30,000 workers across the county; 10,600 of those workers signed cards joining the local and petitioning the agency to hold an election. Remarkably, considering that these were all minimum-wage workers, fully half the petitioners agreed to a voluntary assessment on their wages to support the union’s political-action program — but then, it was the union’s political clout that had brought them this far. "We will be nothing if not a political local," Rolf says.
And a far-flung one. Just locating the members was an achievement: Home-care workers tend to be renters, not homeowners, and change residences a good deal more frequently than most Angelenos. The union employed 22 of its own full-time organizers during its drive last year, and at one point borrowed 75 more from other local unions, and from SEIU campaigns around the country.
Once negotiations begin between the union and the public authority, there should be fairly swift agreement on establishing a registry and training programs. Raising the pay scale over the minimum wage, and establishing health benefits for the 40,000 workers estimated to be without them, however, requires specific appropriations in the state budget — hence, the close relations the union has cultivated with Villaraigosa and Governor Gray Davis. Workers rightly contend that such expenditures still constitute a bargain for both state and county governments. "Just by doing our jobs," says Daniels, "by keeping our patients out of nursing homes, we save the county a whole lot of money."
In 1995, John Sweeney took the helm of the AFL-CIO on the promise to reverse labor’s decadeslong decline. He quickly redirected one-third of the Federation’s own resources to organizing, and urged the member affiliates to do likewise. But the shift to a culture of organizing has not been easy. Officials estimate that "no more than 10" of the AFL-CIO’s 72 member unions have developed real organizing programs.
The foremost of these is the SEIU, Sweeney’s old international, which under the leadership of Andy Stern — the union’s former organizing director, who won the presidency after Sweeney decamped for the Federation — has shifted nearly half its resources into organizing. Of the 475,000 workers that American unions organized last year, 64,000 joined the Service Employees. This year, including Thursday’s victory with the home-care workers — the largest yet of the Sweeney era — SEIU expects to organize 150,000 more.
These are the most heartening numbers American labor has seen in many years — and they are woefully insufficient. After factoring in plant closings and downsizings, the net increase in union members last year shrinks to 100,000. And with the U.S. work force increasing by 2 million new workers each year, the rate of workers who belong to unions declined last year from 14.1 percent to 13.9.
Which leaves unions scrambling not just to increase their organizing resources, but to find new ways to enhance their ability to organize. Both the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees and the Communications Workers have made concessions to employers at the bargaining table in return for the right to organize those employers’ new facilities or acquisitions. And support for organizing drives has become labor’s new litmus test for elected officials: Just boasting a progressive voting record is no longer enough. Union officers can rattle off which congressmen and senators helped them on which campaigns, and which ones declined to. "We support them in their elections," says SEIU’s Stern. "They should support us in ours."
The campaign to unionize the home-care workers in L.A. was from its inception as reliant on amassing political clout as it was on actually organizing workers; given its dependence on both state and county government, it could not have been otherwise. In today’s Los Angeles, however, it isn’t only public-sector union campaigns that are translating political moxie into organizing gains. In Hollywood, the city’s main Hotel and Restaurant local has organized its first new hotel in 14 years in part because the hotel’s new owner needs the approval of the local City Council member (the union-friendly Jackie Goldberg) to build a mega-development. At LAX, an organizing campaign of food servers and security screeners has been helped both by the City Council’s determination to cover those workers under the living-wage ordinance, and by the mayor’s determination to win allies in his bid to expand the airport.
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